Browsing through the stacks of my local library a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.
I hadn’t opened a copy of the book in over 25 years. As I leafed through the chapter on “Buddhist Economics,” I realized I didn’t have as much in common with Fritz Schumacher today as I did when I was an economics major in the early 1970s. But I discovered that we still agree on the Big Questions.
When I was a college student, Small Is Beautiful was touted in literary and academic circles as a groundbreaking critique of Western economics. Schumacher challenged political and industry leaders to reorganize society on a human scale. He called for sustainable local economies based on local currencies and responsible stewardship of natural resources.
Schumacher’s ideas have been kept alive by the E. F. Schumacher Society, an educational nonprofit organization founded in 1980 for the purpose of “linking people, land, and community by building local economies.”
The society hopes to demonstrate through its programs that “social and environmental sustainability can be achieved by applying the values of human-scale communities and respect for the natural environment to economic issues.”
I wondered: what would Schumacher, one of the most influential advocates of human-scale, decentralized, appropriate technologies think of the World Wide Web? A Google search showed me where to go for an answer.
Would Schumacher Have a MySpace Page?
The world needs a modern-day Schumacher on the program of the fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit, November 5-7 in San Francisco, California. The annual event is the brainchild of Tim O’Reilly, the man who invented the term “Web 2.0.” The theme of this year’s Summit is “The Opportunity of Limits: Sustaining, Applying and Expanding the Web’s Culture to Change the World.”
O’Reilly explains that the event isn’t “just about the Web” this year, “From harnessing collective intelligence to a bias toward open systems, the Web’s greatest inventions are, at their core, social movements,” he points out. “To that end, we’re expanding our program this year to include leaders in the fields of healthcare, genetics, finance, global business and yes, even politics.”
But, I object, no one from the field of economics?
The list of speakers is a “Who’s Who” of the Internet: Max Levchin, the Ukrainian immigrant who cofounded PayPal when he was twenty-two years old; Chris DeWolfe, cofounder and CEO of MySpace.com; Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook.
It’s a powerful list, but there’s no one on the program that’s likely to ask the questions Schumacher asked in Small Is Beautiful. Sure, one or two of the “global business” or “finance” people might have a degree in economics, but there isn’t anyone on the list that’s likely to represent Schumacher’s worldview.
For Schumacher, a deeply religious man, the ultimate aim of economics was the creation of a society where the first priority of the individual is the attainment not of material comfort but of purpose-filled living. “When the available ‘spiritual space’ is not filled by some higher motivations,” he wrote in the Epilogue to Small Is Beautiful, “then it will necessarily be filled by something lower.”
Schumacher kept asking the Big Questions right up to the end: he was on a speaking tour in Switzerland when he died in 1977. He wouldn’t have identified with the “MySpace” community of more than 100 million regular users; Schumacher’s focus was on something much bigger than “his space” in the world.
“Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’” he wrote. “The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.” As a deeply spiritual Catholic, he was talking about our “spiritual” house, of course. No one on the Web 2.0 Summit program is likely to offer anything remotely resembling Schumacher’s solution.
What Can We Actually Do?
Put yourself in the following scenario for a moment: what if Tim O’Reilly asked you to add one name to the list of speakers on the Web 2.0 Summit program? Who would you choose?
Let’s pretend: the producers of the summit ask you to name the keynote speaker. The title of the keynote address is: “Web 2.0: What Are We Filling the ‘Spiritual Space’ With?”
Let us know your choice. When we have a winner, we’ll contact the producers of the Web 2.0 Summit. Will they listen? I think they will. The people that are shaping the next generation of the web are where they are today because they pay attention to their communities of users.
Let’s see if their hearing is still intact.
Send your choice of speaker to email@example.com.